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Rituals ground us.

Once something is routine, it takes less mental effort. The ritual gets completed more or less through its own momentum.

Routines and rituals are awesome!

Unless, of course, you've got a crappy routine. One that gets in the way of how you want to feel, what you want to do, how you want to live... and is now running on auto-pilot!

A routine that has settled into your brain and your bones is tough to change. Tough, but not impossible. Break it down step by step, and you can change what you want to change.

Does this open up a pandora's box of self observation for you?

Are you sure something is "off" but aren't sure how to figure out what?

For now, let's stick with setting you up for a good night's sleep.
 

Set your evening routine to suit you

We need to feel safe and relaxed to fall asleep and sleep well. (Being bone tired does the trick, too.) That's why end of day routines are so useful. By being familiar, they ground you, make you comfortable on some level.

But just sorta comfortable isn't what we're going for.

I want you to feel like you did when you were a kid: tucked into bed, Dad reading you The Amazing Bone for the fiftieth time.

So check in: how do you feel when you go to bed? Just kinda normal or genuinely relaxed?

If most nights you go to bed feeling calm and at-ease, then keep doing what you're doing! At some point, well is good enough and better is a misuse of your energy.

If your mood at bedtime isn't what you want, changing something about your evening routine may help.

Here's how:

Once you get used to observing how you feel at the end of your day, start to notice if certain activities shift how you feel.

Here's an example of what I mean: Say you leave work feeling tense, then go to the bar for a drink (or your local yoga studio for class!) and, shortly after, leave feeling more relaxed.

That's a ritual that addresses the need to feel relaxed.

Pay attention to how you feel, what you do in response, and how that action actually effects you.

When you notice a routine behavior (drink after work) that isn't truly having the effect you want, try adding a new behavior to it (go to yoga first).

It might be hard to make that addition at first, but try! Schedule it in and it will be right there on the calendar: yoga... and you still get to go to the bar after!

And then, bit by bit, you may realize you've replaced the need for a drink.

Basta! Ritual changed. Kinda painlessly.

Of course, there are other examples where the swap isn't so neat. It's okay if a great idea flops.

Experiment, but also give yourself a break between testing ideas. In this case, too much trial and error may be crazy making!

You can tackle the problem through physiology by trying soothing activities (bubble bath anyone?). You can read a host of classic suggestions here. None of them works for me, but that shouldn't matter to you.

If you love setting aside time to drink your valerian root tea before bed, hold space for that. Don't let anyone tell you it's not important!

And if, like me, you think drinking tea every night sounds about as soothing as taking your vitamins, then screw that! It's ok and right for us all to need different things.

Find your thing and own it. Because that's when we feel at ease, when we feel like we are truly free to be ourselves without judgment.

Observing with you,

esther

For many of us, the morning routine has the least variability of all our daily habits. Because of this, you may have found it tough to stop and notice how you feel; it's just so darn "every day"!

I hope you did notice a thing or two, because now we're gonna talk about what to do with it. (Didn't get the heads up to observe how you feel in the mornings? Don't miss out anymore, sign up here!)

How to wake the way you want

There are so many factors that go into shaping your morning. Most of them are out of your control. How can you respond to what is?

Keep in mind what you've observed of "how you feel on waking" as we tackle some variables you can address.

First, how do you feel on waking and what do you do in response?

Some feel groggy getting out of bed and immediately step in the shower to wake up.

Others rise feeling full of energy and go for a run to put it to use.

I wake up curious and spend time engaging my churning brain in learning.

What do you feel on waking? And what's the first thing you do?

  1. Something that makes you feel like a kid again? or
  2. Something that makes you feel like an over-burdened grown-up?

Aim for something that makes you feel like your morning self --whether that's sluggish or chipper!

I went from a morning yoga asana practice to a morning reading/writing practice. And I totally feel like I'm getting away with bad yogi behavior, since it's bored into us that you should do your yoga practice first thing --to set your day up right and so you don't forget to fit it in. But, dudes! Screw that! For now, my new practice works so much better than meditation at setting up my day right.

But! There was a time when yoga and meditation did the trick. I still highly recommend a morning yoga practice! It may be just what you need.

Next, what'd you do last night? maybe it's affecting your morning mood.

I love a neat glass of fine whiskey, but more than one too close to bedtime and there goes my morning clarity.

On the flip side, if I go to bed without at least a little bit of wind down time, I wake up at 4am realizing I left an unread email in my inbox. And then I get sucked in to the drudgery of admin tasks. Such a waste of good learning time. *Sigh*

Let go of the day before so you can start the new one afresh. (Easier said than done, but that's why we're talking about it!)

Do any of your evening habits sabotage your mornings?

We'll look at this in more detail in two weeks, but for now, just start to notice if you can connect any evening habits to any morning discomfort (too much scotch before bed, that's not just me --it'll throw your morning outta whack, too.)

Or! Maybe you're one of the lucky ones who's got the perfect bedtime ritual and wakes every day just as you need to.

Bravo you! What are you doing that's working? Protect it! And if you can't always stick to it, know that you may need something extra to move into your day without feeling "off."

Does your schedule match your mornings?

Are you a night owl with a 9-5 work schedule? Are you a morning bird teaching evening classes?

You may be disrupting your unique biorhythm without realizing it. In a perfect world, you can change your schedule to be more efficient in your sleep-wake patterns. But since it's not a perfect world (yet), maybe you can accommodate the mismatch with a small shift in your habits.

What evening or morning ritual can you adapt to better support your natural patterns despite a tough schedule?

Night Owls: If the science has it right, it takes you longer to wake up in the morning because your circadian rhythm is slow. This means give yourself more time.

Take the two hours you need from alarm to exit. This means you'll need to go to bed earlier, which may be rough for you.

Try this: set an ideal time to be asleep by, start your wind down process the hour before, and if you're still winding down with reading or something for an hour beyond your sleep time, so be it. Enjoy more of your book! Or whatever. Ideally this won't happen every night. But if it's more often than not, try amping up your exercise routine. Strong exercise will help most of us sleep better --just make sure it's not too close to bed time, because that may keep you awake longer!

Morning Larks: If you must be productive late into the day, give yourself permission to take mental/energy breaks earlier in the day. Take an extended coffee break (or nap) and set yourself up for a second wind!

If you're arriving home close to your bed time, do give yourself some wind down time, but just the minimum, so you can get to bed at as normal an hour as possible. You'll be up early, after all.

What's the minimum? My abbreviated wind down usually involves a bowl of noodles and about 20-30 minutes with my latest silly sitcom of choice. For you, it may be a cozy cup of chamomile tea in a quiet room.

The best way to find it? Start paying attention to what you're doing now and how it makes you feel. If anything makes you feel not great, try removing it (one day at a time). No need to fill the space --a better habit often comes about on its own.

Whatever your mini wind-down is, once you know it, you can rely on it.

Sleep is awesome

We should all be getting enough sleep (quality sleep! we'll talk about this next week). How much sleep exactly is again specific to you, but there are low and high limits!

Once you've figured out where you fall in the spectrum, own it. And do whatever you can to get the sleep YOU need. That makes your mornings better, which tends to make you a nicer person, too.

While you're doing all this noticing of how you feel on waking up, keep an eye out for yucky morning symptoms! Some indicate an underlying health issue that you should get checked out. If you're concerned, click here to read an article on several common ones.

Treating yourself right isn't always easy, but you're worth it.

Go make your mornings the way you want them to be!

Observing with you,
esther

When I teach a yoga class, I try to let a little food for thought filter in through the steps and breaths.

Some days, the most magical phrases tumble out.

The eloquence of what I've just said astonishes me.

Did I really just say something that I'm willing to pretend sounded smart and useful? How did that happen?

I'm especially surprised because I don't anticipate or plan for these moments of wit. (When I do, I trip over every word. Classic.)

But whether my words are tentatively planned or off the cuff, I've now built a habit (through the practices I shared to my email list last week) of observing what I say. I try to notice whether it has the effect I need it to -- and even more so, what effect it actually has -- on others and on me. 

You know what that does?

It helps me admit that my speech isn't just mine, it's yours, too.

By virtue of being communication, the words we say don't "belong" to us in the way that maybe our thoughts do.

We all know the old adage that what you say matters. We know now thatwords can hurt and words can heal. And I want you to keep all of that in mind as you think back on your observations of how you speak with the different people in your life.

Because I'm guessing you found that your speech varies for different groups of people --sometimes to your detriment, sometimes to theirs, and, with luck, often to the mutual benefit of both.

Here's an example of what I mean. My husband, dear gentle soul, drops f-bombs in response to the slightest mishaps. Spilled milk and the like. His crass exclamations are for his benefit only. In an instant, they help him let go of his frustration. Thankfully, when his nephew is around, he's a little more careful.

Or say, when I'm in a training full of yoga teachers whom I've just met, I'm likely to respond to a thoughtful comment with "Thank you for sharing. I appreciate what you just told us." But with my friends, I'd just say "omg, I know!"

See what I did there? With friends, I keep my support vague and emotional. With colleagues, I set up my support with precision and formality.

Take note of the words you say, those you choose carefully and those you don't make any effort to control, and you'll start to amass solid data on how you view yourself and others.

And trust me, working with solid data makes it much easier to speak your piece and play your part in all your relationships.

Go on. Get talking... and noticing.

Observing with you,
esther

You're practicing observing your thoughts. Maybe you're recognizing the power of thinking. But how exactly do thoughts lead to action?

Remember Newton and the roughly equal force (F) of sudden (high a) vs. daily (high m) thoughts?

Well, if fundamental physics got us to the idea of the thoughts having power (F), it was the algebra that helped us understand the different ways thoughts wield force.

The truth of the equation teaches us not only about F, force, but also m, mass, and a, acceleration. You can look at the different roles the parts play in the equation to see how one effects the others.

Because math is math, all true equations work this way. So we can use this feature again to figure out what thoughts are made of and how they are connected to actions.

The equation of thinking

If you were a thought, what might have had to take place to stir you into being? When do you find yourself thinking?

All the time, I know, but specific thoughts tend to arise with actions, right? You do something, you think something that goes with what you're doing or comes up because of what you're doing.

So, thoughts (t) = Actions (A).

Then what? Does something need to be added to the action to create thought or determine the nature of the thought? Is thought the action amplified or deconstructed by something?

To sort through this, let's say you're doing a walking meditation. That means you're walking (pretty slowly) and thinking only "left foot, right foot, left foot, right foot..." (or similar) and presumably you're feeling nothing about what you're doing. You're at an emotional neutral.

In this scenario, t = A is sufficient. But t = A can also be expressed as t = A * 1. Thus there can be an algebraic equation t = A * x, right? Just so long as x = 1 = neutral feeling/emotion.

But what if you've been sitting in a traffic jam for half an hour? When the cars start to move, you'll likely feel relief and think something along the lines of "Oh, thank goodness we're moving".

Your emotion here is other than neutral and it has contributed to your thought. So, we can replace x with a more precise variable f, feelings, and allow it to have a value other than 1. Thus: t = A * f

Your thoughts are the result of your actions and the feelings they stir up.

Of course, because of algebra, where t = A * f, it must also be true that f = t / A and A = f / t. Oh, how I do love equations! But even still, let's not get too attached to the exact equation. I concede you could as easily justify t = f / A as t = A * f because we're dealing with the mind in a broad, non-scientific way, so maybe just roll with it for me...

Whatever the actual "math" for any one situation might be, the point is that your thoughts and feelings and actions are undeniably, mathematically (!), intertwined.

Your thoughts are the product of how you feel about your actions.

Your actions are the result of your feelings analyzed by thoughts. It doesn't matter if those actions are automatic or calculated.

Your feelings are the result of transforming your thoughts into actions.

Want to change the value of any part of the equation? 

You can go through either of the other two parts to get there. Change your Actions and you'll create a shift in your thoughts and/or feelings.

Feel rotten? Make yourself smile and jump and dance. Fake it till you believe it.

Feel antsy? Do something that requires a hefty physical effort or mental focus.

Feel joy? Soak it in. Know that you'll be OK when the feelings of joy morph into something else.

Some days, it'll feel like you're fighting yourself. But the more you let yourself dig in, the better a shot you have of your better self coming out the victor.

How do you dig in?

Thinking nasty thoughts about a colleague? 

Find a good feeling: search for at least one thing about her that makes you smile. Go the extra mile and tell her.

Thinking critical thoughts about yourself? 

Take action: do something you're really good at, even if it's a mundane task.

Assess and repeat!

Sometimes, though, making these shifts isn't the right move. Certain thoughts you should engage with and shouldn't try to walk off. If you feel challenged and resistant to any of the above suggestions, try to ask yourself why. Do you just need to feel the way you feel for a while? Are you going through something tough that does indeed need processing?

Those aren't the thoughts and feelings to ignore or throw away. Engage freely in turning them over in your mind. Talk them through or write them down. (External processing can speed the healing process.)

When the challenge of observing without engaging is too much, trust that. 

If, rather, you just seem antsy or bored with the task, well, you can do better, I promise! (As long as you want to do better.)

Change your approach, or give it a break today and come back tomorrow. Then, keep at it, a little bit each day.

By doing so, you'll have the fuel for transforming your thoughts, feelings, and actions!

Once you can observe your thoughts enough to realize that they're effecting you, you can take an action to change them directly or indirectly, as per our equation above.

You will always have the three components in your equation to create the change you seek. If one doesn't work, you can try another.

Keep at it, day by day.

Observing with you,
esther

There's a powerful force in your life. Your thoughts.

(Missed my email on how to start observing your thoughts? View it here and then sign up below to catch the next one!)

If your thoughts create palpable force, then perhaps we can draw in a little help from our old pal Newton to understand how thinking works...

I know. Physics wasn't exactly what you were expecting. But don't go! There are no tests here, just pure concept that even I can grasp.

A lesson from Newton

Newton's second law states: Force = mass * acceleration

That is, the amount of force something exhibits is the result of its "size" and speed. A grizzly bear is big enough that he can knock you over with a slow punch or a rapid smash. But the force of the rapid smash will create a crushing impact, while the slow punch will just make you fall.

A mouse who stumbles into you will leave the slightest impression - a tickle on your ankle. But a mouse who races headfirst into your ankle at his top speed is gonna make you take a step back (unless you're braced and ready for him).

Another way to say this is that power is bred of size and timing.

And if your thoughts have power over you, it's likely because they

  • hit suddenly, even if they're small or "inconsequential"
  • onset slowly, especially when they're big or profound

Or you could think of size as volume. Then your powerful thought might have

  • high repetition, while being of average size or everyday importance,

and create a strong force in you.

(I can't tell you how much this analogy tickles me. Such is the power of thinking over your feelings, but more on that next week!)

The power of thinking

Sudden revelation can feel like an actual force has slammed into your brain.

The power of that force makes you stop and take it in because you don't really have any other option. That's how a sudden insight can change the course of your life.

Is there a moment you can think of that rerouted your own actions in life?

Just a teensy bit of re-purposed physics "proves" that the same ability to change your life can come through the steady persistence of an everyday thought.

Why might you even want to tap into the "power" of thinking? Why should you care that it's there whether you seek to create it or not?

Is there something about yourself or others that is true but that you struggle to embrace and believe?

You can remove the struggle.

Take the truth, package it up nice and neat, and then repeat it in your thoughts everyday.

One day, somewhere out there in the future, not only will you believe it, you will start to make decisions and take action based on that truth. (So make sure it's actually true and useful before you begin!)

(Thought repetition can work in both good and bad ways --so please, take care with your thoughts. Avoid repeating factual falsehoods or hurtful, negative opinions (about anyone) in your thoughts. They won't do any permanent damage once in a while, but over and over again and hurtful thinking, well, hurts.)

Put your thoughts to work

The power of thinking fuels action and generates changes beyond your mind. And while you may not be striving to take action on anything in particular, its still important to be aware of this equation.

There will be power in your thoughts that you didn't know was there.

A powerful thought can propel you to say, do, or feel something you didn't expect. And if you weren't expecting it, you may not be prepared to take the driver's seat with it there.

I can't tell you how many times I've nearly lost my sh*t for what felt like no reason at all. But somewhere in my head are the ideas, the thoughts, the experiences that tie into those moment of zero cool.

Even if you don't have an outlet in mind for the power of your thoughts, that power will go somewhere: into your next thoughts or actions, or maybe someone else's ear.

Start paying attention to your thoughts. You can become aware of how you react, respond, and reflect in your thoughts. Through that clarity, you can shape your actions.

How do you start? I have an equation for that too. Check back here next week for part two on the power of thinking in which we tackle not only thoughts but feelings (!) and taking action...

Till then, keep observing,

esther

Have you ever started to observe your gait and got lost in the rhythm of your stride? I love that a simple walk can lead to meditative focus in the mind. Mind you, it's not my entry point for meditation, because rather than being lulled into focus, I spend every second analyzing the myriad details of how I'm walking.

Why not join me?! Or at least entertain a brief investigation...

Here are just two things that might make you curious to observe your gait:

  1. Your gait is full of patterns that indicate muscle and tissue balance or imbalance. Imbalance in muscle strength and use is often related to joint or muscle pain causes.
  2. The way you walk, the attitude of your stride, tells reams about how you relate to the world around you (now or at some point in your past).
  3. And for all you runners: your walking gait can help you uncover patterns in your running stride as well.

I listed out 5 ways to get started observing the way you walk in my newsletter, which you can view here (you can subscribe on the same page if you choose).

Once you've started to pay attention to the details, you can take that information and ask some questions about what it means for you.

Hit the Ground Walking

A few years back, a Harvard study and several articles (such as here, here, and here) compared foot strikes in runners. (Though there isn't conclusive evidence, there is indication that a heel strike can be harder on your joints especially when your stride is long.)

But what does that mean for walking? Is a "heel, ball, toe" stepping pattern the way you're "supposed to" move through your foot as you walk? Or just a phrase bored into my noggin after years of dance training?

But first, what is your foot strike?

"Foot strike" refers to the way your foot first touches or "strikes" the ground on landing. Watch the below video playlist for a quick demo of heel strike, midfoot strike, and forefoot strike (which ended up looking kinda awkward, but it isn't always!):

So which foot strike are you "supposed" to use when you walk? Within a shod society, no matter how we walk, it's most likely "wrong" (or inefficient). Shoes often get in the way, as this NY Times article explains.

But by observing how you walk and experimenting with small changes, you might just determine a gait that best suits you (both with and without shoes). You can start by noticing how your gait accommodates different shoes. How do you walk in heavy winter boots vs flip flops? in high heeled shoes vs flats?

We're talking about your feet because the way your foot moves through each step influences your whole gait. And if shoes change what your feet can and can't do while walking, shoes effect your gait too. The ripple effect may be hard to notice because we get used to the things that we do every day, like walking. Practicing some observation of the ordinary can help you uncover the good and the not so good in your habits and "unconscious" patterns.

For example, you may not know, until you start to pay attention, that your shoes and how your walk contribute to your shoulder pain. Maybe not directly, but anything that happens above is going to be a response to what's happening below (or vice versa). But when you bring unconscious movements into your awareness, you can start to unfurl the layers of influence in every move you make.

It can help to think of the body as a chain of links.

Each link needs to be strong and mobile (within a certain range) for the whole chain to move well. Let's stick with the shoulder pain hypothetical to look at how this works.

If your inner foot collapses towards the floor, it will take your ankle, then your knee along for the ride. This can exert an undesirable work-load on the muscles of your hips, and lead to an unbalanced pelvis. When the pelvis sits askew, the spine has an uneven base of support. This can throw the shoulder girdle off its center as well. More likely than not, muscle strain will result at each one of these links, though you may feel only shoulder pain.

How you use your feet is part of how you stand, how you walk, how you move, and how you engage with the world.

So, how can you learn to move better, all from the ground up? 

It's not a quick fix (is there really such a thing with healthy movement?), but here's my advice:

Learn to Move Better From the Feet Up

  1. Pay attention to where in your feet you put your weight (in standing, walking, etc).
    • heels
    • toes or ball of foot
    • outer edges of feet
    • inner edges of feet
    • evenly across the whole foot
  2. Exercise your feet (see video below)

 

Watch this short video playlist for three ankle + foot movements you can do to condition your feet for every day life!

These exercises promote foot and ankle joint health and are appropriate for "all levels". Doing them daily would not be excessive.

Go on, give these a try and then share your observations in the comments below. As always, I love to hear your own stories of new awareness!

And if you found this useful, share it with your friends. Most of us gotta walk somewhere, right?

Observing with you,
esther

Last week, I guided my email subscribers to spend the week observing their breath. (Want in? Sign up below!)

Why would you want to spend time observing your breath?

Because there's strong evidence linking breath quality to physical, mental, and emotional health. And then there's my own experience.

Being "in charge" of my breath has changedmylife

If you're new to observing your breath, here are some ideas for where to start.

5 Ways to Get Started Observing Your Breath
  • There's no right way.
  • It's ok to be wherever you are with this. Perfect place to be. Besides, you can't be anywhere else right now, anyway.
  • It can help, if you're ok with it, to be still and close the eyes. (Not ok with those? Not so helpful then, are they? You can leave them be and move on.)
  • Ready-ish?
    • Where do you feel movement?
    • Can you hear your breath? If you can, try describing the sound.
    • It can be useful to compare your inhale and exhale length (is one longer?). It might help you to count, but it might not.
  • You can acknowledge that noticing your breath might be: tough, scary, uncomfortable, distracting, exhilarating, or whatever it is for you. (It's been all those things for me, at one point or another.)

Somewhere in observing the breath, even if you don't like doing it, you're likely to meet a part of yourself worth listening to.

Like the story from one of my students who is eager to learn how to use her breath to improve her mood throughout her day.

She read through my suggestions, pulled up a chair, sat down, closed her eyes, and started observing her breath.

Within less than a minute, she felt light headed. It was disconcerting.

Remembering that there is no right way to observe self, she opened her eyes.

Within another minute, she felt better. And as she continued to pay attention to her breath, she noticed feeling grounded. Calm. With her eyes open and able to take in her surroundings, she stayed connected to her physicality.

That was quite something for her.

Now, she keeps her eyes open. And she practices observing her breath in many situations --standing in line, walking the dog, or doing the dishes.

Breath observation can help us come back to "home base." 

A big part of this is responding to what you notice.

Say you notice that observing your breath makes you strain to lengthen your exhale. No good! Go ahead and switch your focus to something mundane, like what's for dinner, to give your breath a change to regain normalcy.

Then, when you're ready, you might be able to reflect a bit. Can you tell what caused you to strain? Even if you're not sure, can you change something about your approach that might help you to avoid straining?

Taking action to change your situation can be the difference between giving up and finding a way to feel comfortable inside your own skin.

Here's a basic practice that can help us all find our way --through unique experiences-- to a comfortable breath.

Whole Torso Breathing

I call this whole torso breathing because we try to allow movement in the whole torso. That's a big area, so it helps to think of the torso as having three sections: upper chest, middle torso, and low belly.

  1. Lie down on your back with your knees bent -or- sit "upright" in a chair with your feet flat on the floor.
  2. You can close your eyes if it helps you focus. You can also keep them open if you prefer.
  3. Gently start to observe your breath. Then draw your attention to the movement of the breath in the three sections of the torso:
    1. Low Belly: Place a hand comfortably on your low belly. Observe any movement you feel there while you breathe.
    2. Upper Chest: Place a hand comfortably on your upper chest. Observe any movement you feel there while you breathe.
    3. Middle Torso: Place a hand comfortably on either side of your low ribs. Observe any movement you feel there while you breathe.
  4. Release your hands and check in: What did you notice? Did one section move more than the others? Was there lots of movement? Not much? Take what you noticed into what you do next.
  5. As you inhale, see if you can allow movement in all three sections of your torso. (Over the course of the inhale, not all at once.) Same thing as you exhale. Continue for one minute or more.

That's it. Sounds simple, but it's effective.

No need to take my word for it. Fit in five minutes daily (shucks, I'll take weekly), and you'll be able to tell me what it's doing for you.

Send me your comments below, I read and respond to every message. And hey, if you end up finding this useful, share it with your friends. Everyone's gotta breathe, right?

Observing with you,

esther

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